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Posted As Missing

By Michael Walsh All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Romance

Blurb

Early in World War One a young Canadian soldier is trapped behind German lines. He uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture, then deeper into enemy territory, he meets a young woman who recently lost her father and brothers to the war. She takes him home to meet her mother, hoping he can help them escape back to their family roots in Switzerland. As they flee over the mountains, love blossoms and stirs old traumas. He's torn between following his heart and honouring his sworn duty

Chapter One

Ypres, Belgium25 April 1915

The first German chlorine gas attack on 22 April had severely skewed the balance. The French Colonial troops were routed and retreated, the Canadians sustained heavy casualties, but held on. When the Germans advanced toward the gap, the reserve Canadian battalion was ordered forward to push them back and retake the higher ground near Saint-Julien. The line moved back and forth for three days with fierce fighting and more gas, as the Canadians continued unreinforced, bluffing being a larger force.

By the 25th, their numbers were so diminished their ruses were no longer credible. At dusk, the Germans began firing mortars to cover another advance. The exploding shells caught Canadian squads out deploying a barbed wire tangle in front of their new position.

Many hours later

Black... Nothing but black. Oh, God! I’m blind. David closed his eyes and drifted off at the edge of consciousness. Face feels like it’s been ripped off. Smells like I’m in a latrine pit... Worse. He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes again to stare into the blackness. Head’s so sore. The sky slowly came into focus, and he blinked to clear his vision. The Milky Way. I see the stars. He closed his eyes again, then blew out a deep breath. Lungs still work too. No gas this time.

I’m alive. How much of me? He wiggled his fingers and toes. All twenty seem still attached. Cold, wet crotch. Fuck! He moved a hand to check and smelt the stale urine as he probed. Thank God! Just piss. He blew out another deep breath. Twenty-one. So now what?

He tried to remember where he was. Thoughts of the squad working with the barbed wire drifted in, so he rolled his head side to side to check his surroundings and saw scattered bodies. He paused his breathing to listen. Quiet. Not a sound.

David rolled, raised onto his elbows and looked around in the dim light to examine the bodies. No movement. Dead. Maybe unconscious. He scanned back and forth, trying to count. Tough with them blown to pieces, the scattered limbs. He closed his eyes and held his gag. Looks like six or eight of us. At least some of the squad made it back. Maybe captured.

He rolled onto his back again. Focus, David, focus. Ignore the pain. Which way to the trench? He opened his eyes and turned his head to again scan his horizon for movement. Satisfied there was none, he sat to check beyond the scattered bodies. In the middle distance, he saw shapes moving, dark shapes backlit by starlight. Spiked helmets. That’s Fritz. That’s the wrong way. He lay back and closed his eyes again, trying to ignore the pain.

Wonder if anyone else is alive here. He started speaking in a low voice, “Any...” but stopped with the pain of his mouth. “Lo... Lo...” That’s easier to say. He listened. “Lo... Lo...” He listened again.

After several repeats, he thought, Enough of this. Up on his elbows again, he scanned for motion among the bodies and beyond. Fritz is still over there. He picked up his helmet. Useless bent this way. Have to borrow one. With his rifle slung, he began crawling away from the Germans, taking an unneeded helmet as he went. Then moving up into a low crouch, he continued.

His mind gradually cleared. Why haven’t I reached the trench yet? Gone more than far enough. He stopped. Fuck!. Going the wrong way. Fritz must have kept advancing, pushed the Front past me. I’m now behind them.

He unslung his rifle and pulled back its bolt to check it. Jammed. Bloody useless thing’s jammed again. “Idiot!” he mumbled, feeling the pain intensify as his mouth flapped loosely. He ran his tongue over his lip again. Feels like a large piece of my face is missing. Must look awful. Daren’t touch it. Hands are filthy.

With his rifle slung again, he crept onward, dipping into a crater to pause for another quick look around. Lots of spiked helmets back over there. Looks as if they’re searching for living among the dead. He focused on the bodies strewn around the crater. These are Fritz. Good to see we’re getting some of them. Fine kettle of stew you’re in, David. So where to from here. Don’t even know where here is...

An approaching voice startled him. He plastered himself to the moist soil and held his breath as two German soldiers passed about ten yards away.

... sogar leicht verwundet?... even the lightly wounded?”

“Ja, keine Gefangenen mehr. Der Leutnant sagte, wir hätten zu viele..... Yes, no more prisoners. Lieutenant said we have too many of their wounded already. Slit their throats, the warm ones. We need to...”

David listened to the voices recede, then he lay back on the crater’s slope and pondered his options. Try to sneak back across to our lines. No, too many of them over there. He sat up and looked again. I’d be captured. Have my throat slit. Could clear my rifle, charge their rear, taking some of them with me. Fuck, that’s quitting. I’m not ready to quit.

He focused on the dead bodies, then after scanning the horizon for signs of movement, he crawled out of the crater to search for the least bloodied uniform. Shot in the head. Looks about my size. He dragged the body into another shallow shell hole and stripped it. Sorry young fellow, but you don’t need this anymore.

As he finished dressing, he thought, An adequate fit, though the boots are a bit loose. He dropped his identity discs into one of his new boots, looped the cord of his new hundemarke around his neck and put his new wristwatch in a pocket. Stay focused on getting out of this. Thinking of the pain does nothing to help.

After emptying the pockets of his old uniform, he put it against the side of the crater, dragged the corpse on top of it, and using his Ross rifle, he collapsed the steep earthen wall to bury them. He took a careful look around, then flung the rifle to the bushes. Piece of shit works better as a pickaxe. Picking up the Mauser, he stepped up out of the crater and continued slowly onward.

Onward is the only safe way to go. Need to find out who I am. He pulled out the metal tag and tried without success to read it in the dim light. Moon’s gone. Must have been unconscious a few hours. Have to play stunned. Good thing my mouth’s fucked, it’ll disguise my strange German accent... Must remember to be guttural.

He started running old conversations with Conrad through his mind, trying to refresh his German vocabulary and grammar. His thoughts wandered through their wonderful discussions in the mountains while they climbed and explored.

“Halt! identifizieren Selbst... Halt! Identify yourself,” came a voice ahead through the dark, quite near.

Startled by the order, David froze, stopped breathing and peered into the dimness of the starlight, searching for the owner of the voice. Images flashed through his mind. Weapons pointed at him. A firing squad lined up and aiming. Stupid idea, David. Should have headed back. Is it still evening? No, past midnight with the moon gone. “Morgen,” he replied with a mumbled and slurred voice, “Mund beschädigt. Bitte, Sanitäter... Morning. Mouth damaged. Please, medics.”

“Sie sind verwundet. Welche Regiment sind Sie mit?... You’re wounded. What regiment are you with?”

“Schmerzhaft zu sprechen... Painful to speak.”

He was relieved the short conversation had gone well, pleased with how quickly the young soldier had seen his need and had forgotten about identification. For the remainder of the exchange, David nodded, grunted and played stunned.

Another soldier led him about a quarter mile to a barn at the edge of a small hamlet and told him to lie on the cloth-covered hay along the side of the makeshift clinic. The place was crowded with wounded soldiers and he fit in well.

He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the pain. Wonder how the rest of them fared when the Germans advanced. Surely the reinforcements had arrived by then. Three fucking days for the Frogs and the Brits to muster their reserves forward. Bloody Hell! We were less than half an hour.

His turn came, and his wounds were examined, cleaned and dressed by an orderly, who finished by adding several layers of gauze around his chin and the back of his neck and another multiple wind around under his jaw and over the top of his head.

A clerk recorded the information from his identity tag, and he was led to a troop truck half-filled with other walking wounded. He was told he would be heading back to the field hospital for stitches as soon as the truck was full. A hint of dawn lit the horizon as he sat, and he finally realised he had been out for many hours. We left the trench at dusk. Now it’s dawn. I’m not tired. Was I unconscious the whole time? Did I sleep part of it? Probably a bit of both.

He was pleased with how seriously wounded he must have appeared with the bandaging. Great for my ruse, but I wonder how long the supply of gauze will hold out in the clinic. Seems wasteful. That medic wrapped so much around my head, this helmet barely fits now.

He removed the helmet and examined it. Strange. The ones the fellows bring back from no-man’s-land as souvenirs are all made of leather. He turned it in his hands. Fritz must be running out of leather outfitting all these kids for the trenches. My God, they seem so young.

He put the tip of his little finger through the single bullet hole. This must have been mercifully quick. He shuddered. Blood’s now dried. He pushed the thick felt tatters together from the inside to close the hole, then smoothed the nap on the outside. That’s better.

Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the pain as he assessed his situation. It’s working so far. Just blend in. Be part of the scene. Move with it as it evolves. The truck soon filled, and the sun was just rising as they started moving. Better find out who I am. He pulled out the stamped metal tag. Seems strange what that Brit was saying, Fritz calls these hundemarken, dog marks. He read it:

1.Rhein Pionier
4.IR 8.K
KNn. 1423

Shit, that doesn’t help. No name, only a number. I’m a member of the Rhein Pioneers. Not at all useful. Could play amnesia.

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